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Foot and Ankle Pain Q&A

Mr Rajiv Limaye, consultant orthopaedic surgeon at BMI Woodlands Hospital, answers the most frequently asked questions about foot and ankle pain, covering common causes, how to manage your pain, and when to seek treatment.

Foot/ankle pain is very common and is often nothing to worry about. Often the pain will go away on its own, perhaps after a little rest or some home management techniques.

Still, it’s not always easy to identify the cause of pain in the foot and ankle. If you are worried about aches and pains, speak to your GP.

What are the common causes of foot and ankle pain?

There are many reasons why an ankle or foot might hurt. You might have a condition such as arthritis or bunions, you might have injured yourself, or you might be in pain because of overuse, wear and tear, or even because you’re wearing shoes that don’t fit properly.

Common conditions causing foot and ankle pain include:

  • bunions
  • bursitis
  • achilles tendonitis
  • tendon dysfunctions
  • plantar fasciitis
  • fallen arches
  • sprains
  • gout
  • various types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis

Common foot and ankle injuries include sprains, damaged tendons or ligaments, and broken bones. If you think you have injured your foot, it is always best to see a doctor. Even a small injury can get worse if it’s not treated correctly and early enough.

Who is most likely to get foot or ankle pain?

Foot and ankle pain is not restricted to any particular group of people. Both active and inactive people can be equally affected, there are no age limits, and both men and women are equally affected.

What should I do or not do when my foot or ankle starts aching?

A useful approach is the RICE method: rest, ice, compression and elevation.

  • Rest – taking the appropriate amount of rest
  • Ice – applying ice to reduce swelling
  • Compression - compressing or wrapping the foot/ankle with a bandage
  • Elevation – keep your foot elevated on a pillow when lying down

Other ways to manage short-term pain in your foot or ankle include over the counter painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

If you follow these treatments for two weeks and you don’t see an improvement, speak to your GP or to a specialist physiotherapist or consultant.

If you have been diagnosed with a long-term condition that’s causing your pain, your doctor or physiotherapist will give you tailored advice on how to manage your condition and any flare-ups.

One of the most important pieces of advice is to remain active. This must be in conjunction with looking after your joints, muscle strength and function.

If your symptoms aren’t responding to your usual methods, seek further advice from your specialist.

How do I know if my foot/ankle pain is a symptom of an underlying condition?

Usually, the first symptoms of any foot/ankle problem will be swelling, pain and/or deformity. This is your body reacting to the underlying issue.

These symptoms will eventually start to limit your activities. Active people tend to notice this more quickly. If this happens, it’s time to seek medical advice.

When should I seek medical advice for foot/ankle pain?

If you have pain in your foot or ankle, see a GP if:

  • The pain is so bad that it’s keeping you from normal daily life
  • Your pain gets worse or keeps coming back
  • You have tingling or loss of sensation in your foot
  • The pain doesn’t go away after two weeks of rest and home management

Don’t put off seeing a doctor. If you’re in pain for long periods of time, speak to a professional.

How are different types of ankle pain and types of foot pain diagnosed?

Different conditions will have different symptoms, presenting with pain or swelling in different places. For example, an ankle sprain will likely cause a swollen ankle, while pain in the ball of your foot can be caused by a sprained metatarsal.

After an initial assessment, your consultant may want to undertake further investigations, for example X-rays, ultrasound, MRI scans or CT scans. These can confirm the diagnosis.

What treatments are available for ankle pain?

Depending on the cause of your foot or ankle pain, you will normally first be prescribed a course of non-operative treatment.

Physiotherapy can be very effective at treating pain in the ankle and foot.

However, if you do not respond to non-invasive treatments, and if your condition is very advanced, you may be recommended foot surgery or ankle surgery. Common procedures include bunion surgery, ankle arthroscopy and ankle replacement surgery.

Surgery can be very effective, but it will only be recommended when other options have been exhausted.